1) Brown is good. Look at the four food groups of Texas—chicken-fried steak, burgers, barbecue, and Tex-Mex—and name the common denominator: They’re all earth-colored, and all came from meat-loving folk who understood long ago that high-calorie rewards were ideal after a rough day of rounding up cattle or plowing cotton fields.
2) Chiles. Like most people in interesting parts of the world, Texans adore spicy foods. Delightfully, we don’t have to look far to find the perfect way to liven up our cooking, now that chile farming is gaining valuable ground in Texas. In the early autumn, you can drive toward El Paso’s historic missions and pass thousands of acres of jalapeño fields ready for harvest. High in vitamins A and C, these chiles are perfect when chopped fresh and sprinkled atop a burger or plate of scrambled eggs, or pickled for use in a condiment like escabeche.
3) Cooper’s, Llano. This little slice of heaven in the blessed Hill Country is my pick for, hands-down, the best barbecue in the whole great state (although Kreuz Market in Lockhart and City Market in Luling run close behind). Look for the giant, smoke-belching pits out front that, when opened, give you a glimpse of the depth and breadth of this whole wonder of mesquite-smoking goodness. You point out the pork shoulder and pork ribs, beef brisket, cabrito, sirloin steak, chicken, or fresh sausage you want, and the pit-master will pile it on a tray for you to take inside to wolf down at a picnic table.
4) Pickett House. When we’re longing for the kind of Sunday dinner our grandma would make, we head to this vintage cottage deep in Tyler County, found inside Heritage Village at Woodville. You’ll have to pardon our boardinghouse reach, as the family-style servings of chicken and dumplings, garden-fresh vegetables, and cornbread made from stone-ground cornmeal are too good for us to mind our manners.
5) Food festivals. Texans love any old excuse for a party, and the latest bumper crop is always cause for celebration. In the teensy Panhandle town of Floydada, they pile on the fun for Punkin’ Days in fall. The Central Texas towns of Poteet and Bertram spread the hospitality for their strawberry and oatmeal fetes, respectively, while the good people of Lakehills on Medina Lake stir things up with their Cajun Festival and Great Gumbo Cookoff, and the world has two chili-cooking championship contests in Terlingua in November.
6) Hamburgers. Texans can claim this as our own, thanks to a cafe owner in the East Texas town of Athens named Fletcher Davis. The story goes that Davis first put together a meat patty sandwich in the late 1880s, and took it for exhibit and sale at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. A marker on a downtown Athens building marks the spot, and even McDonald’s Hamburger University backs up the story. Best places to enjoy them today? Standing up at Kincaid’s Grocery in Fort Worth, and at Wise County’s Greenwood Grocery, northeast of Decatur, where old westerns are always playing on TV.
7) Chicken-fried steak. Born on the cattle-driving trail, this Texas staple was poor folks’ food, as the cowboys ate pretty much what their coosies (chuck-wagon cooks) could scare up. Longhorn was a tough beef, so the coosie pounded it until tender with whatever tools he could find, then dredged it in flour and fried it up in a Dutch oven. Texans by the thousands now savor it on a daily basis.
We like eating CFS in the West Texas town of Strawn, where the two primary businesses in town are two cafes, Mary’s and Flossie’s, which go head-to-head in a dead-heat battle daily for the title of best CFS in Texas.
8) Big Texan Steak Ranch. Not one of the businesses to put out a welcome mat for Oprah when she appeared in an Amarillo court against the beef producers, this bodacious restaurant couldn’t have been designed by Hollywood. You can prove your carnivorous commitment by getting the Big Texan’s 72-ounce prime steak dinner free—IF you can eat the steak and the accompanying salad, shrimp cocktail, baked potato, and bread in one hour.
9) Ethnic eats. Dozens of ethnic and cultural groups have combined to create the complex society that is Texas today, introducing their beloved foods in the process. The best way to understand the people who weave the fascinating fabric of Texas is to experience the Norwegians’ Christmas bread, the Polish hunter’s stew, the Serbian paprika chicken, and much more. And the way to do that is to put your hands on The Melting Pot: Ethnic Cuisine in Texas, the cookbook researched and published by the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio.
10) King Ranch Chicken. Nobody’s figured out how this dish got its name, as the King Ranch—among the most famous and largest ranches in the world, and a producer of the wonderfully beefy Santa Gertrudis cattle breed—has nothing to do with chickens. Nevertheless, it’s a beaut of a Texas casserole, layering corn tortillas with chicken, sour cream, mushrooms, tomato, chopped chiles, and Cheddar cheese, all seasoned with cumin and dried ground chile.
11) Albany. Called “the home of the Hereford,’’ this West Texas town’s beef heritage is well honored at the Fort Griffin General Merchandise Restaurant. It may look like a roadhouse at first glance, but the inside is homey with curtains and antiques, and the rib eyes are fork-cutting tender.
12) Sarah’s Cafe. When my route to Big Bend takes me through Fort Stockton, I always stop for a plate of some of the best Tex-Mex in West Texas. In business since 1929, this friendly little joint is run by the descendants of Sarah Ramirez Nuñoz, who serve up sturdy, cheese-loaded enchiladas, tacos, chalupas and nachos, day and night, in her tradition.
13) Texas produce. If you’re a regular at roadside produce stands, you know what we’re talking about. Texas’ more than 180,000 farms provide us with what may be the best fruit and veggies anywhere. Look for Medina apples, Pecos cantaloupes, peaches from Parker and Gillespie counties, grapefruit and oranges from the Rio Grande Valley, the famous sweet 1015 onions and spinach from Crystal City, where a statue of Popeye reminds you: You’re in leafy, green land.
14) Kolaches. Travelers braving the arduous stretch of I-35 between Dallas and Waco know that their rewards await in the yeasty pillows sold at the Czech Stop and other little bakeries in the Czech immigrant-settled town of West. Get them stuffed with fillings of apricot, blueberry, prune, and other fruits, or packed with savory bundles of sauerkraut, Swis cheese, and smoked, peppery sausage.
15) Tex-Mex. Although restaurants in Texas have been serving what we now consider Tex-Mex since well before the time of Santa Anna, the term came to pass in 1972, when cookbook author and Mexican food authority Diana Kennedy made the distinction between the authentic dishes from Mexico’s interior and the “mixed plates’’ served north of the border. The late Matt Martinez Sr., along with his wife, Janie, opened Austin’s first Tex-Mex cafe, the famous Matt’s El Rancho, in 1952. Matt Sr.’s son, Matt Martinez Jr., now co-owner with his siblings and mother, has taught Tex-Mex cooking to restaurateurs from as far away as Russia. He also points out that it’s the fastest-growing cuisine in the world. So there.
16) Shrimp. The shrimping fleet that fishes the Texas Gulf Coast is one of the world’s largest, and there probably isn’t a place where you can buy this delectable crustacean any fresher. We love buying shrimp right off the boats at Port Aransas in the afternoons, then heading back to our rented condo to whip up a fresh feast for supper.
17) Dr Pepper. The national soft drink of Texas was created at Waco’s Old Corner Drug Store in the 1880s, and the recipe used today is very close to the original. I like sipping a cold one inside the soda fountain at the cute little Dr Pepper Museum in Waco and at the Dr Pepper plant in Dublin, which still makes the elixir with pure cane sugar.
18) H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop. At this El Paso landmark, your car gets an old-fashioned (hand) wash, and you get a belly full of amazing huevos rancheros or carne picada with freshly roasted chiles. Visited by no less than Julia Child, the H&H won a coveted James Beard culinary award.
19) Catfish. If this fish were hooch, most of East Texas would be drunk all the time. You can’t throw a rock down the street in towns from Gladewater to Jasper or Mount Vernon to Beaumont without hitting a catfish joint. One of my favorites is Big Pines Lodge, sitting next to picturesque Big Cypress Bayou adjacent to Caddo Lake. The lodge’s fried catfish, cloaked in a crispy cornmeal batter, comes with some of the best hushpuppies and green-tomato relish in the world.
20) Cut-to-order steaks. Really fresh steaks are not a thing of the past, if you know where to look. In the Denton County town of Ponder, a no-frills hangout called Ranchman’s is the place to go if you want to hear the saw whine once you place your order for T-bones, rib eyes, and strips. Don’t forget to call ahead with your baked-potato order.
21) The Chili Queens. Chili, which would eventually become the Official State Dish in 1977, is thought to have been first served up in the 1880s on San Antonio’s Military Plaza. An industrious group of women cooked and served bowls of the spicy meat stew from stands around the plaza, helping create a festive energy for the city’s growing nightlife. A big serving of chili and beans with a tortilla cost all of a dime. The health department closed the stands in the early 1940s, but the Chili Queen legacy lives forever.
22) Corny Dogs. In the late 1930s, brothers Carl and Neil Fletcher spotted a Dallas street vendor selling hot dogs coated in cornmeal batter, and they decided to put ’em on a stick and sell ’em deep-fried. The idea took, and in 1942 they were offered at a booth at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. Today, more than 60 years and millions of Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs later, Neil’s sons, Skip and Bill, continue the family tradition.
23) Beans ’n’ cornbread. If mama didn’t feel like cooking the big feast, she’d just put on a pot of pintos to soak over Saturday night, cook them up really slow on Sunday morning and into the noon hour, then grease up the cast-iron skillet and bake a big batch of cornbread with bacon drippings. We’d eat/nibble on the combination meal through the afternoon and evening, never thinking anything could be better.
24) Fritos. Made in San Antonio in the early 1930s, this humble little corn chip became the cornerstone of Dallas’ giant Frito-Lay corporation, now part of PepsiCo. We like to think of it in simpler terms, used as the foundation for a cherished comfort food, the Frito chili pie. Prepare your favorite chili (you can get exotic by using venison or quail for the meat), then pour it on a Frito bed, and top it with grated cheeses, chopped fresh onions, and jalapeños.
25) Margaritas. Where the margarita was invented depends on which story you believe, but most agree it was in Texas, or very nearby. Some versions put it in Galveston, while others say it originated at the Kentucky Club, across the Rio Grande from El Paso in Juárez. We do know for a fact that the frozen margarita was crafted by Mariano Martinez at Mariano’s Mexican restaurant in Dallas in the 1970s, when he put his family’s secret margarita recipe into an Icee machine. Tequila has never been the same since.
26) Tamales. The tradition of making tamales at Christmas began long ago in South Texas. Grandmothers, mothers, aunts, children, and neighbors would gather for days on end to produce a hundred dozen or so tamales for friends and family to eat at holiday gatherings. Cooking and assembly teams would be broken into particular duties for masa and filling preparation, separating and cleaning the corn husks, and finally rolling, tying, and steaming the luscious bundles. Those who don’t have the patience or teamwork today can order delightful tamales online from Pedro’s in Lubbock and Hot Damn, Tamales! in Fort Worth.
27) Pecans. In the autumn, pecan tree branches become heavy with their bounty of nuts, and the delicious fun begins soon after harvesting. Grown in some 150 Texas counties, Lone Star pecans come in such varieties as Desirable, Western, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Cape Fear, and many more. Enterprising cooks make batches of spiced pecans, pralines, and fudge for holiday gifts, and Corsicana’s Collin Street Bakery is legendary for pecan-packed fruitcakes that are shipped to every state in the nation and 200 countries around the world.
28) Blue Bell. Late in August of 1907, the Brenham Creamery Company opened its doors to sell butter. By 1911, they had put together milk, cream, eggs, and fruit fresh from local farmers and were making a gallon or two of ice cream daily, packing it in a large wooden tub with ice and salt and delivering it by horse and wagon to neighbors. By 1930, Blue Bell Creameries had been born, and today their ice cream is a true Texas favorite. Made in a multitude of flavors (Tin Roof is tops with me), it’s like a hug in a bowl.
29) Salsa. Some people still call it hot sauce, but to keep from confusing it with the thin pepper sauce native to Louisiana, we call it salsa. Half (along with chips) of the state’s Official Snack, salsa dethroned ketchup as the nation’s favorite culinary sidekick, and it’s exactly the right addition to anything from breakfast tacos and macaroni-and-cheese to grilled fish. Typically made with any variety of chiles, onion, tomato, garlic, vinegar, salt, and cumin, my favorites are Mrs. Renfro’s of Fort Worth and the muy fabuloso blends from the ever-hip El Paso Chile Company.
30)Fried pies. A favorite treat from the Rio Grande to the Red River, this delightful, portable dessert has been popular in the Lone Star State since cowboys first worked trails and ranches, and it’s found in every vintage Texas cookbook you see. The gold standard, then as now, is apricot, thanks to a tartness that plays well against the mellow pastry. For the best anywhere, you’ll have to head to Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit Bakery in the Big Bend town of Marathon, where former ranch cook Shirley Rooney has folks lined up at the crack of dawn for her precious fried pies.
From the September 2004 issue.